Feelings of loneliness affect all of us at one time or another. But there is one group of people for whom loneliness is not just an unpleasant emotion; it can actually increase their likelihood of becoming ill, and can lead to premature death. That group is the elderly. A British charity called the Campaign To End Loneliness has called loneliness the “hidden killer” of elderly adults. It says that almost one in ten elderly people suffers from feelings of loneliness that can be described as “intense,” and that this loneliness constitutes a public health issue.
Loneliness and the elderly
Many elderly people lose their mobility, and thus begin to feel trapped in their own homes. They lose touch with their family and friends, and develop feelings of loneliness and isolation. While many are aware of this situation, until recently few have associated this loneliness with the physical damage it can produce. Loneliness makes people more susceptible to depression, poor diet, and a lack of exercise – all of which are proven risk factors for cardiovascular disease, stroke, impaired memory and ability to learn, alcoholism, and the onset or progression of Alzheimer’s disease. One theory is that chronic loneliness impairs the immune system, and leaves the body more susceptible to inflammation.
A new approach to reducing loneliness – meditation
In a recent study published in the journal Brain, Behavior & Immunity, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University tried a new approach to solving the problem. Working with people between the ages of 55 and 85, they taught half of them to meditate using the same Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program that has been proven to be so successful in other situations, such as treating chronic pain, extreme depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In the eight-week study, the participants were taught the techniques of MBSR, which included attending a one-day meditation retreat, and were then asked to practice these techniques at home for half an hour every day. Not only did the MBSR group report fewer subjective feelings of loneliness than the control group (those who were not meditating), the researchers found numerous objective health benefits as well.
One of the most important was a reduction in the production of genes related to inflammation. This was considered significant because inflammation is known to contribute to a number of health risks such as cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative disease. In the control (non-meditating) group, their feelings of loneliness actually increased during the study, and were physically associated with an increase in the expression of the NF-κB gene known to be pro-inflammatory. In the MBSR group, their feelings of loneliness decreased, but so did their levels of the NF-κB gene, and thus their resistance to inflammation.
J. David Creswell, one of the Carnegie-Mellon study’s authors, said of his findings, “We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way. We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”
Mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain
In other studies, MBSR has been found to actually increase the amount of gray matter in the brain, and thus is being investigated as a possible preventative technique for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. When performed in conjunction with moderate exercise, in another study MBSR was also linked to reducing the severity of colds and flu, which again may be a result of it enhancing our bodies’ ability to fight inflammation.
The results of this study are preliminary, and need to be followed up by more studies, but all agree that they are promising, and that the effects of mindfulness meditation are impressive. As Steven Cole of the UCLA School of Medicine said about this study, “[the] results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.” In other words, the surprise in this study is not just that a mental technique can reduce emotional distress and help people to feel less lonely, it’s that this purely mental technique can significantly affect your body and its ability to remain healthy.